The Athletic gets into video by licensing a show from The Players’ Tribune

Original video programming appears to be the newest way The Athletic is courting subscription dollars.

This week, The Athletic is airing a video series called “Gordon Hayward: The Return.” Produced by another sports-focused media startup, The Players’ Tribune, “The Return” spans five episodes, each running between eight and 12 minutes, and follows the Boston Celtics star as he prepares to return to the NBA after a major injury. The series marks the first time The Athletic is posting video that’s only for its subscribers, said Alex Mather, CEO of The Athletic.

The Athletic is also functioning as a content buyer in the way that TV networks, Netflix and other major video programming buyers license shows from producers. The companies would not comment on the specific financial figures for this deal, but The Athletic has exclusive rights to “The Return” globally. The Players’ Tribune retains ownership rights of the show concept and intellectual property, and after an unspecified amount of time, will also have the ability to re-distribute the show across other platforms and distribution channels.

“It’s important for us to retain our IP rights and redistribution rights,” said Raphael Poplock, evp of partnerships and business development at The Players’ Tribune. “But as with any deal, it’s a conversation and a negotiation.”

Poplock said TPT was already developing “The Return” when The Athletic got involved. Hayward has written stories for TPT and the publisher was working with the star forward on a documentary series that tracks his return to the NBA.

“Once we had a good sense what the project was looking like and had a strong sense of the format and direction, we had conversations with some of our closest partners [to distribute the show],” said Poplock. “The Athletic was one of a few partners we discussed this with.”

For The Athletic, which had more than 100,000 paying subscribers as of June, exclusive video programming is another way to satisfy existing customers while trying to recruit new ones. The company has previously told Digiday that its renewal rate is higher than 90 percent. And with nearly $30 million in funding, the company has the money to aggressively court not only big-name sportswriters but also high-quality video productions.

A spokesperson for The Athletic said that with “The Return,” the site is experimenting with video to gauge whether subscribers would be interested in this type of content. The company has also been expanding its NBA vertical, and Boston is one of its newest markets, the spokesperson said.

“It’s natural for a sports-focused site like The Athletic to move into offering original video content to deepen its overall subscription value proposition,” said Peter Csathy, founder of media advisory firm Creatv Media. “And as other sites have proven, that video does not always need to be game highlights.”

For The Players’ Tribune, the deal with The Athletic is a continuation of the company’s expansion into producing and licensing video productions for other platforms and buyers. Previously, TPT has sold shows to Verizon’s Go90 and Facebook Watch. It also has a weekly live show on Twitter called “Verified,” in which athletes answer fan questions, and a show on Snapchat Discover called “Best of TPT.” Overall, TPT has more than a dozen original video projects in development today, said Poplock.

“Each project is a different animal: some are shorter form, some are mid-form, and others are longer form. Some projects we’re doing the production, and in other cases we’re considering co-production [deals],” Poplock said. “This will continue to be a growth part of our business and something we continue to invest in.”

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